DAMASCUS - The 20-year- old Montgomery County man linked to the discovery of box cutters on at least two planes is a brainy ham-radio operator who told his college newspaper last year that he wanted to show the federal government that he was a "voice of dissent."
Nathaniel T. Heatwole, now a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., told the newspaper that he sent the Selective Service System a strongly worded letter of protest after it mailed him a form letter on his 18th birthday asking him to sign up for military service in the event of a draft.
"I wanted to let them hear the voice of dissent, just in case they were listening," an February 2002 article in The Guilfordian quotes him as saying. When the agency signed him up anyway, the self-described pacifist speculated that federal officials had been so upset by his letter that "they basically wanted to really hit me where it hurt."
The image of a Heatwole as a cerebral student with strong anti-war views emerged yesterday as federal investigators continued their probe of how box cutters, matches and modeling clay got past airport screeners and into the lavatories of two Southwest Airlines planes. The items were found on planes in New Orleans and Houston late Thursday during routine maintenance inspections. They were accompanied by notes intended to alert the government to weaknesses in airport security.
Heatwole told a North Carolina newspaper early yesterday that he had spoken with the FBI about the security breach, whose discovery led to a search of the nation's 7,000 commercial airplanes and raised questions about the adequacy of airport security two years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I have a ton of stuff I'd like to say, but now is not the time," he told the Greensboro News & Record. "I have to work with the government before I work with the media."
Outside his family's house in Damascus, a rural stretch of Montgomery County where barns, cows and fields line winding country roads, his sister, Amanda, sat in a tree swing yesterday and told reporters that the family had no comment.
Heatwole was apparently inside with his parents. A legal proceeding is expected tomorrow in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
A Bush administration official told the Associated Press that a suspect had sent the government an e-mail with detailed descriptions of plans to hide similar items on six planes, but that he was not deemed a security risk.
The Transportation Security Administration and the FBI "have had this individual's activities under investigation for several months," Adm. James M. Loy, the administration director, said in a statement. "Based on the investigation conducted thus far, this individual does not appear to pose any further threat to airline security."
FBI officials have discounted any link to terrorism.
Southwest Airlines tightened its security routine yesterday, intensifying the morning searches of its 385 planes.
The news that Heatwole might have been involved in planting the items surprised neighbors in Damascus and ham-radio enthusiasts who knew him through his membership in the Potomac Valley Radio Club.
"I can tell you he's a bright, sharp, accomplished young man," said Jack Hammett, president of the club, which awarded him a $1,000 scholarship this summer.
The club's August newsletter describes Heatwole as a double major in physics and political science at Guilford College, a liberal arts school, founded by Quakers, with a history of civil disobedience dating to its resistance of Confederate conscription during the Civil War.
Heatwole won a dean's award last year for writing, and a $2,500 school scholarship this year for "outstanding character, intellect and scholarship." A fan of extreme weather, he wrote an article on "storm chasing" that is referred to on numerous Web sites for big-weather enthusiasts.
Randy Doss, the college's vice president for enrollment and campus life, said in a statement that the school was contacted by the FBI on Friday afternoon about an "ongoing federal investigation involving a Guilford College student." Doss would not name the student.
"We had no reason to suspect that a student was engaged in the reported activity," Doss said. "The college will conduct its own internal investigation."
Brenda Emmons, a former neighbor and family friend who used to baby-sit for Heatwole and his sister, said he was a solitary sort who spent hours with his father, Antony, working on their shared hobby, ham radio.
"Nat" used to cut her lawn, she said, and he and his family often got together with her for dinner or conversation. Heatwole would often talk about Quaker values and his opposition to war, she said.
According to the article in The Guilfordian, Heatwole is not a Quaker, but follows many of the tenets of the faith, including its credo of nonviolence.
Sun researcher Jean Packard and the Associated Press contributed to this article.